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First Person: A Frank Discussion on 3D Printing's Evolution and Future

Area Development’s staff editor Clare Goldsberry spoke with David Cox, president/CEO of Purple Platypus, which he founded in 2007, as an AM equipment seller and distributor for Stratasys, developer and manufacturer of FDM, Polyjet, and Objet — 3D printing technologies; and Purple Porcupine, a service bureau with 12 machines that print 3D parts for a variety of customers and markets. 3D printing, also known as rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing (AM as opposed to subtractive manufacturing) hasn’t exactly been an overnight success. After 25 years, the industry is finally getting the attention it deserves — some good, some bad. In fact, last year the government opened the first 3D technical institute in Youngstown, Ohio — the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute — and plans 15 such institutes, if the administration can get the $1 billion in funding.

Q3 / Summer 2013
AD: Can you explain a bit about the beginnings of 3D printing and its evolution?

David Cox: Additive manufacturing, as it’s called, or 3D printing began with the stereo lithography process — or SLA system developed by 3D Systems — in about 1986 and has progressed from there. However, it hasn’t been a smooth process; it’s had fits and starts. Today, in addition to SLA there are several other technologies including Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Selected Laser Sintering (SLS), and some metal printing (Direct Metal Laser Sintering or DMLS). The equipment has evolved as well, and today, in addition to desktop printers, there are smaller, DIY printers — some in the sub-1,000-dollar range marketed to inventors. There are even FDM printers in homes today for those techno-geeks who like to play with the process. SLA is still the prevalent technology. All the service bureaus use SLA. The medical device industry uses SLA for product development. The problem is that it’s a messy process.

AD:Who are the major players in the industry?

David Cox: Today, there are two major players in the 3D printing market – Stratasys and 3D Systems, which have contributed to a lot of the consolidation that has taken place over the past few years. Last year we saw the completion of the merger of Stratasys and Objet to create a $3 billion company. 3D Systems has been on a buying spree with its purchase of some competing technology along with materials developers and service bureaus. Of course, the down side of this consolidation is that the price of the equipment and the materials is going up.

AD: While it’s taken 25 years, 3D printing or “additive manufacturing” is seeing some good success. What do you believe has contributed to the technology’s success in recent years?

David Cox: The major contributor to the success of the technology is the fact that companies are able to compress their product development cycles and get their products developed and into the market faster and at reduced cost — particularly when companies are creating new products that involve plastic components.

3D printing means you can create prototype parts without having to build a mold first — which is expensive.

AD: There is a lot of talk about making end-use parts using 3D printing. Where do you see most of the activity in 3D — prototyping or actual end-use parts?

David Cox: Ninety percent of 3D printing is still done for prototyping and product development — R&D activities. We see some demand for end-use parts but that’s few and far between. The types of (polymer) materials available are the number one reason, and cost is another. 3D printing is a one-off process. When you want to make one of something it’s inexpensive, but if you want 1,000, it’s not. Most people compare it to injection molding in which the molds are expensive but molded parts are pennies.

AD: What will make 3D printed parts for end-use applications more common?

David Cox: Materials development and getting costs down. There are more materials now than in the early years of the technology, such as polycarbonate, ABS, and higher-end engineering materials such as Ultem. As materials have gotten better and stronger, we are seeing some demand for end-use parts. The proprietary materials still rule the market, but there are major barriers to cost, for both the equipment and the materials. The equipment manufacturers don’t want to make the printers cheaper, and even the DIY printers haven’t made any big inroads into the market for the high-end professional-grade printers.

AD: Will 3D printing ever be primarily for end-use parts?

David Cox: Until materials get better and cheaper, the answer is no. Moving forward, as materials are being developed there will be more and more opportunities for end-use part applications. The resolution has gotten there and is good for 95 percent of companies. But most product developers want the prototype in the material that the end product will be molded from for functional testing purposes. That’s been the big thing.

AD: You’ve mentioned the cheap DIY 3D desktop printers, but you don’t seem real excited about the potential for any real market share there. Why?

David Cox: I really don’t see these low-end printers going anywhere. The problem with DIY is they’re a flash in the pan. They don’t make quality things. People think this machine will sit on your desk and you can print everything; however, each system uses different materials so you can’t get one system to print everything. Even if you buy one of these for cheap up-front, there’s still cost involved for the equipment and material. It will be interesting to see what will happen with these “tinkering” machines.

AD: Some people believe that 3D printing is the next big thing. Is it?

David Cox: Do I think 3D printing is going to take over and all plastic injection molders will be out of business? No. Whether the government will put in these centers, who knows. There really hasn’t been any new 3D technology to come out in a long time. Unless a new way to skin this cat comes out or we get new materials — manufacturers are in it for the materials — it will remain to be seen.

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